Monday, December 11, 2017

Combrook, Warwickshire


Thoughts of St Augustine, Kilburn, were still in my mind recently when I visited Combrook, a village in Warwickshire, not far from the Fosse Way. Combrook was an estate village of Compton Verney and seems to have had a lot of attention paid to it in the mid-19th century, when a number of cottages were built or rebuilt, a school was erected, and the church given a new nave. The architect of the church was John Gibson, who was also at work making alterations to the great house of Compton Verney in the early 1860s. Gibson gave the church a striking west front, a visual highlight in the centre of the village.

The style of this front is Gibson’s very ornate version of what the Victorians often called ‘Middle Pointed’, that’s to say the phase of Gothic fashionable in the first half of the 14th century. Elaborate window tracery, naturalistic carving, and ogee arches are typical features. However, this frontage is hardly typical. It’s a Victorian throwing everything at a small church – very fancy tracery (‘overcusped’, says Pevsner), unusual shapes in the form of a rose window and a pair of ‘circular triangles’, a very ornately carved ogee doorway, the small overhanging turret with its spirelet, and outward-leaning angels flanking both the turret and the doorway.
This is all very impressive in a slightly gawky way, and the oddity continues with the treatment of the aisle roofs, which consist of multiple gables rather than a single lean-to, a design that produces an odd junction between the downward-sweeping angle of the west front and the gables that stick out behind it. Gibson’s work here is a little like that of the Victorian ‘rogue architects’ such as S S Teulon – inventive, ornamental, unafraid to be different from the accepted Gothic models – but without Teulon’s polychrome dazzle or his skill in handling three-dimensional forms.† For all this, the overall effect is pleasant, rather like a large garden ornament, and an admirable focal point for this attractive village. 

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* This is the phrase used by the architect and writer Harry Goodhart-Rendel to describe an adventurous and sometimes outré group of Victorian church architects. For my post on a church by Teulon, look here.

† Gibson’s best known church, the ‘marble church’ at Bodelwyddan, in the lower Vale of Clwyd, also has very elaborate tracery and carving, but is more conventionally roofed and massed. Gibson is most famous for designing banks, but was clearly much more versatile than this suggests.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Kilburn, London

Pearson’s triumph

I was reminded the other day by an article by Gavin Stamp in Apollo that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Victorian architect John Loughborough Pearson.* I’ve been a fan of Pearson since the 1990s, when I got to know his lovely early church of St Peter, Vauxhall. Gavin Stamp rates the architect highly too, although he rightly insists that Pearson was sometimes too eager to rebuild to his own design when restoring ancient buildings.†

Pearson’s masterpiece is the church of St Augustine, Kilburn, known to some by the nickname ‘the Cathedral of North London’. From the outside it has a fine soaring spire, but it’s the interior that really sets this building apart. I’d single out three aspects of it that work especially well.

The first is the handling of space. It’s tall, and the large windows at gallery level make it also very light. It’s also broad, because there are double aisles, meaning that there is plenty of room for a large congregation and also, no doubt, for elaborate processions. The depth of those aisles and of the gallery above them is due to the way they contain concealed internal buttresses, a feature that Pearson adapted from the great southern French cathedral of Albi.

Those buttresses are the key to the second outstanding feature of this church, the stone vaulting that they support. Pearson was very good at vaulting and the vaults dominate the interior of St Augustine’s. The shafts from which the vaults spring begin at floor level, leading the eye up from the rather low arcades, past the much taller galleries, to the ceiling itself. This consists of a simple quadripartite vault with slender ribs, whose pale stone contrasts with the darker brick of the infilling. The vault is continuous, covering both nave and chancel, which gives the space unity and also leads the eye eastwards, towards the altar, as well as upwards.
St Augustine, Kilburn, chancel

But if our gaze is led east and up, it also pauses along the way because of the third remarkable thing about this interior: the decoration. There is a lot of it, too much even to list here, from the paintings depicting miracles along the gallery fronts (done by Clayton and Bell, who were also responsible for the stained glass) to the collection of sculpture (the Crucifixion, Resurrection, apostles, saints, angels) in the chancel.¶ Everything exemplifies the Victorian view of church building outlined in William Whyte’s book reviewed in my previous post: that a church should contain a collection of symbols that can be read and that it should move the visitor and worshipper. It certainly moves me.

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* I was pleased that Stamp also singles out one of Pearson’s smaller churches, the one at Daylesford, Gloucestershire, another favourite of mine.

† Pearson was by no means unique in this, of course, but his treatment of the north transept of Westminster Abbey is a particularly glaring example of a Victorian redesign where replacement would have been both possible and appropriate. See Stamp’s piece for more detail.

¶ All this is a far cry from the temporary corrugated iron church that was built for the congregation to use while St Augustine’s was being built, the subject of an earlier post here.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Churches unlocked

William Whyte, Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space
Published by Oxford University Press

Here’s the last of my Christmas book reviews: an illuminating study of 19th-century church buildings that’s also a good read…

William Whyte’s new book offers a revealing way of looking at Victorian churches, one that highlights neither the battle between architectural styles nor the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ church. Whyte instead concentrates on the ways the Victorians understood and experienced church buildings, stressing in particular two key ideas – the church as a symbolic building that can be ‘read’ and the idea that church architecture can shape people’s emotions. Both of these themes are given a new emphasis in the 19th century and they cross theological boundaries: they are expressed by High churchmen and Evangelicals, by Catholics, and even by nonconformists.

These ideas are in sharp contrast to those of the Georgian period, in which churches lacked rich symbolic content. But, as Whyte shows, they predate the influence of the Cambridge Ecclesiologists and the Oxford Movement, which were in other ways so influential on the Victorian church. They go a long way to explain not only Victorian architectural preferences, and underpin changes in the way churches were lit, the their seating arrangements, and such things as the use of flowers to decorate churches. And they influenced the way churches were used, not just in the increased number of church services, but also the way in which churchyards were reclaimed as sacred spaces, the development of church parades and processions, the movement to keep churches unlocked during the week, and even the design of buildings such as parsonages and schools.

The people behind all this are central to the story. Whyte dwells not only on clergymen and architects, but also on lay patrons and, importantly, antiquaries. These were the people who wrote about church architecture, who interpreted it for the public, and who regularly insisted on its symbolic content – not least in the thousands of church guidebooks that were written in the 19th century. We are the heirs of these people, not just because we still use and visit Victorian churches (and, of course, churches restored by the Victorians) but also because we inherit these notions of symbolism and of architecture that moves us. If we want to preserve Victorian churches or their fittings, it is often because they move us, or because they are powerfully symbolic.*

Unlocking the Church is a necessary corrective to the tendency to look at Victorian churches in purely architectural terms. If we cannot quite see Victorian buildings as the Victorians saw them, the book helps get much nearer that elusive ideal.

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*Ironically, the fact that buildings have this power is even behind reorderings that attempt to do away with Victorian church fittings (if buildings did not have such a powerful effect, ‘modernizers’ would not take so much trouble to try to reorder them), as Whyte points out.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Plans and people

Richard Rogers with Richard Brown, A Place for All People
Published by Canongate Books

My next pre-Christmas review is an account of life, works, and beliefs by one of our foremost architects...

We tend to think of famous architects in terms of their most high-profile projects. Richard Rogers, one of the pre-eminent architects of his generation, brings to mind instantly major buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd’s Building in London. But there is much more to him than that, and this book – part memoir, part architectural inside story, part manifesto – tells the stories not just of these but also of many less well known designs, from his early houses to more recent social housing projects. All these have fascinating aspects, and it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book to discover more about familiar and unfamiliar buildings alike – what drove the designs, the thinking behind them, how they got built.

The book is revealing, as one would expect, on the architect’s formative experiences.His closeness to Italy is key – his Italian parents and cousin, the architect Ernesto Rogers, his admiration of Italian piazzas, his love of Florence, his work with Renzo Piano. There is also the formative influence of innovative architects in Britain, such as Peter Cook and Cedric Price, and in America, where his first experience of New York and his time at Yale are described. But history and historic architecture are important too, whether it’s the achingly beautiful piazza in Siena or the work of great Victorian engineers like Brunel or Paxton.

Then there’s the work. Rogers’ account of the various crises involved in getting the Pompidou Centre designed and built, and the controversies that surrounded Lloyd’s, are vividly told: it’s worth reading the book for these alone. A major theme is the development of adaptable buildings, and of lightweight structures, from the early Reliance Controls building near Swindon to the Millennium Dome, aka O2.

Another important leitmotif is public space. Rogers loves lively public spaces, especially those Italian squares. He not only promotes public space when he can, but actively encourages it and builds it into his plans – the piazza next to the Pompidou Centre is a key part of the design and Rogers and Piano’s was the only scheme for the site that provided this facility. He is exercised, quite rightly I think, by the poor provision of public space in some British cities and the erosion of this space as it gets sold off to private owners who let the public in on their own conditions. And he is particularly engaged by the spaces in capital cities. He believes that every Parliament should have a public space next to it for people to demonstrate ion, and finds it an embarrassment that Britain’s government sought to banish demonstrators from London’s Parliament Square.

A Place for All People, this book is called, and people are at its heart. Star that he is, Rogers is constantly at pains to credit his partners, co-designers, and engineers (he’s worked with some of the best of those), and to build up a picture of some of the ways in which a large architectural practice works. People’s importance to him is not just about socialising in the River Café or enjoying big family get-togethers in his enviable London house. People are at the core of what he does and understanding that offers a way of understanding Rogers and his remarkable buildings.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Buildings of nonconformity

Christopher Wakeling, Chapels of England: Buildings of Protestant nonconformity
Published by Historic England

The next of my short series of pre-Christmas reviews is of a book that plugs a major gap in English architectural history: a general account of Protestant chapels and meeting houses...

The architecture of England’s Protestant churches (from Methodists to Unitarians, Baptists to Quakers) has been a difficult subject to get to grips with. There has been plenty of research (the old Royal Commission on Historic Monuments saw to that) but there is such diversity of denominations and architectural approaches that it is hard to see patterns or get a sense of overall development. In addition, nonconformist churches, unlike so many Anglican churches, are not often open, so casual visitors rarely get inside them.

Christopher Wakeling’s new book does much to remedy this situation, giving a clear, wide-ranging, and nuanced account of dissenting architecture in England, from the beginnings to today. The book’s approach is chronological, and it shows that, from the very beginnings it was hard to generalise. The diversity is there from nonconformity’s roots in the 17th century, when one found some groups worshipping in former Catholic churches (dissolved monasteries and priories, for example; even Exeter Cathedral was divided in two and shared between Presbyterians and Independents) and others building simple, often domestic-looking places of worship for themselves.

In the period from the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 to the mid-18th century, chapels start to become more architecturally assured, impressive, and distinctive. Given the general importance of the Bible and the sermon in nonconformity, it’s not surprising that Wakeling finds buildings influenced by the Georgian ‘preaching boxes’ of the Church of England. But his book also shows that the dissenters were much more adventurous with plan forms, especially towards the mid-18th century as the influence of preachers like John Wesley took hold – Chapels of England singles out some impressive octagonal and oval buildings.

Methodism’s great age of the late-18th and early-19th century has its own chapter, chronicling a time when rising populations and vigorous preaching led to many new chapels, including some outstanding large ones. Growth was especially strong in the Regency and early Victorian periods, by which time the first specialist architects of chapels, men like William Jenkins, James Fenton, and James Simpson, had emerged. Wakeling notes a variety of designs, with a trend towards Greek revival yielding in part to the rise of Gothic designs (the great classifier of Gothic styles, Thomas Rickman, was a Quaker). But the author is at pains to stress that it was not simply a question of the Gothic fashion taking over in the Victorian period: the picture was always one of stylistic diversity, within denominations and across the whole field. 

And so the story continues through the period of continued renewal in the later 19th century, when one could find monster Classical town chapels, tiny Gothic wayside chapels, and Gothic town chapels that looked like Medieval churches being erected at the same time. By the end of the century an Arts and Crafts influenced style had been added to the mix, especially in suburbs and Garden Cities. By the time of World War I, it was evident that many of these structures were major buildings, and nonconformist architecture was being taken seriously in books like Joseph Crouch’s Puritanism and Art

Christopher Wakeling’s fine book, lavishly illustrated, clearly written, and underpinned by deep research, brings the story up to date, with a good selection of 20th-century chapels in styles from expressionistic Gothic to modernist. It does an excellent job of bringing all these buildings and the religious motivation for constructing them to life, illustrating their best points, and delineating some sort of pattern to the complex story of nonconformist architecture, a story that is also one of heterodoxy and variety.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Use and ornament

Roger White, Cottages Ornés: The charms of the simple life
Published by Yale University Press

As the Christmas period approaches, I’m reviewing a small clutch of recent books that I’ve enjoyed and that might give pleasure to readers interested in architecture. First, a book on a kind of house that stands out in landscape and villagescape: the cottage orné

The ornamental cottage – a small rural dwelling made more visually pleasing than the standard worker’s dwelling by means of various decorative embellishments – is one of the most charming phenomena of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has found an enthusiastic and well informed chronicler in Roger White, who begins his survey investigating the roots of the genre in mid-18th century rustic estate buildings before exploring the fashion at the beginning of the 19th century for housing rural workers in picturesque cottages with thatched roofs partly held up with rustic poles, verandahs, bits of timber-framing, fancy bargeboards, and other ornamental features.

From here he moves on to the larger, still more ornate and more varied middle-class cottages that were built in the Regency and Victorian periods, and the cottages enjoyed by the aristocracy and even the royal family. The range covered here is immense, from buildings based on designs in pattern books to glorious one-offs. Among the latter, the expected examples are here – the wonderful A La Ronde in Devon, Plas Newydd at Llangollen, the Queen’s Cottage at Kew, the Royal Lodge at Windsor. But it’s the sheer scope and variety of the lesser known examples that impresses, and the account takes in a broad geographical sweep too, with chapters on cottages ornés on Britain’s ‘Celtic fringes’, in mainland Europe, and further further afield.

We get glimpses of the owners of these places – a smattering of vicars and retired sea captains, unconventional bankers, pairs of spinster ladies like the creators of A La Ronde and several other cottages ornés. We discover the specific areas of Britain especially rich in this widespread architectural type – the Isle of Wight, Sidmouth, the Lake District. We take in a specific, Picturesque, view of the pattern book tradition, in which bargeboards and Tudoresque chimneys are more important than the Classical orders. And we luxuriate in a variety of images (both photographs and prints) of such things as shell rooms, stump houses, rustic masonry, and walls lined with quatrefoil windows.

People are apt to think that there’s something rather frivolous about cottages ornés.  But Regency landowners were quite serious about housing their workers in attractive houses so that they would be happy and more inclined to work hard, and theorists of the Picturesque were serious about the life-enhancing importance of a good view. In any case, one little regarded purpose of architecture is to entertain: Cottages Ornés shows that this is not an ignoble aim, and both the aim and book are worth celebrating.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Uffington, Lincolnshire

Tame and wild

I’d probably not normally have given the two lodges outside the village of Uffington, near Stamford, a very long glance. As we passed, we wondered what house might lay behind them and I thought they might be early-19th century. Then suddenly, simultaneously, two pairs of eyes met two pairs of eyes.’Look! Wild men!’ we cried, seeing the carvings on top of the rusticated gate piers. Wild men, men of the woods, wodewose – grisly of hair and beard, they have various names and many incarnations, but are unusual adornments for a pair of gates at the entrance to a country house.§ They seemed worth another look, so I began to search for somewhere to pull in.

The parking place turned out to be next to a pub, the Bertie Arms, and I realised the significance of the carvings on the gate piers. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Bertie wild men.’ The remark brought an interrogative stare from the Resident Wise Woman. ‘The Bertie family,’ I said. ‘They have a wild man on their coat of arms.’* I knew about Bertie wild men because there is one on one of their family tombs in the church in Spilsby, also in Lincolnshire, near where I was born.
Looking the place up afterwards, I learned that Uffington House had been built for Charles Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey in the 1680s and was destroyed in a fire in 1904. It was one of those late-17th century houses with rows of sash windows, a hipped roof, dormers and a central pediment.† Now this gateway and some other gate piers remind passers-by of the house’s presence and these very Classical, civilised-looking lodges make a memorable contrast with the splendid, vigorously carved heads atop the piers who, making a welcome change from the usual urns, stare wide-eyed across the fields towards Bourne, Spalding, and the endless fens.

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§ Wild men are everywhere in myth, literature, and heraldry. Perhaps Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient of all surviving epics, is the first wild man; they are still around in the works of Tolkien and Ted Hughes. They occur on coats of arms from the low countries to Central Europe, and Antwerp has a wild man and a wild woman as supporters of their arms. The Danish royal arms has wild men supporters and when the Danes began to rule Greece, the wild men became figures representing their Classical cousin Herakles.

* There were no wild men on the pub sign, though, presumably because the wild man on the coat of arms is one of the supporters, and the pub sign did not show these.

† Uffington was one of the hundreds of houses included in the famous 1974 V&A exhibition The Destruction of the Country House.